REVIEW: The Maids | Sydney Theatre

Isabelle Huppert, Cate Blanchett and Elizabeth Debicki in The Maids (Pic: Lisa Tomasetti)

Oh, Benedict, Benedict. You’ve defiled The Maids. Well, with a little bit of help from Andrew Upton, as co-translator. Then again, there’s only so much damage even you can do. I’m being flippant, of course. Nonetheless, the return of Benedict Andrews from no man’s land (or was it Iceland?) seems to me less than triumphant, on this evidence.

What was, of course, anticipated and touted as one of the highlights of Sydney’s 2013 theatre calendar failed to engage, on the whole. Not for want of trying. Maybe trying, too hard, was the problem.

A colleague of mine spoke recently of the “transparency” of Eamon Flack’s direction of Angels In America, an ambitious undertaking if ever there was one. He was referring to the fact Flack seems to feel no need to impose his stamp, or ego, on his work, other than by doing his job as well as he possibly can. There are no conceits, affectations or eccentricities superimposed on the work which shout the director’s name. No overt branding strategies. Andrews, if you ask me, could learn from this. Oh sure, I admire his chutzpah, coming back from the dead and resurrecting his toolbox, but the implements are hardly shiny or new anymore. They’re looking more than a little tarnished.

Striking as it is on first entering (largely by dint of dozens of faux flowers), Alice Babidge’s set looks like a chillingly sterile funeral parlour, rather than a wealthy woman’s apartment. Well, somewhere between a mortician’s and Madonna’s bedroom. There’s an elongated, superbly art directed rack of sumptuous clothes at the back of the stage which afford that association. It’s very compressed, too, this set, with precious little of the vertical dimension being exploited. Yes, there’s a point to the undertaking (if you’ll pardon the pun): The Maids, after all, is loosely based on the true story of the Papin sisters, who cold-bloodedly murdered their employer, in Le Mans, in 1933; but it’s too clinical and there are too many hard surfaces, an impression exacerbated by the wholesale use of mirrored panels. Again, yes, granted, this has a thematic relationship, since The Maids is very much concerned with selfhood and self-delusion, the myriad of personae that can inhabit but one human being. Still and all, I found it rather overwhelming, distracting; imposing on Genet’s plot and central ideas in a rather heavyhanded fashion, even if the rationale was to have us gaze fixedly upon them.

Nick Schlieper’s lighting, too, was for the most part starkly illuminating: LED-level brightness where incandescence would’ve been, I would’ve thought, de rigueur; as this play, surely, is more about illuminating shadows. After all, Genet ‘liked the darkness, even as a child’.

There’s no denying the luminosity of the stars. Catherine Elise Blanchett. Isabelle Huppert. And Great Gatsby principal, Elizabeth Debicki. Who wouldn’t be there? And, it seemed, almost everyone who’s anyone was, on opening night. But Cate and Isabelle are playing sisters. Cate has been directed, apparently, to apply a very proper, almost English way of speaking when her mistress is present and a coarser, broader, Aussie accent in private. Isabelle, however, is (inevitably, I suppose) stuck in her heavy, French onion soupy accent, which only but thickens when she’s speaking quickly or heat is applied to a scene. She’s a great actor, brimming with confidence, charisma and comedic skill, in particular, but much of her speech was entirely lost on me; it’s a good thing she was so physically expressive. She might as well have performed in French and, if Benedict was as anxious to be, or appear, ‘out there’, as I suppose, the whole play could’ve been in French.

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Categories: Plays, Sydney

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16 Responses

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  1. Three excellent talents on stage here, however there is not a lot of joy siting in fact trapped (no interval) through this ‘one themed’ ramble of nearly two hours of whinging, moaning animosity towards each other in the predicament of their lives they think they can only escape through murder.
    There is no variation from this one boring ground to death theme.
    Lots of us will rush to see the wonderful Blanchett in anything she does, but the packed audience this day seemed pretty flat at the end, albeit plenty of sitting ovation.
    Was glad to escape even into the rain !

    by Graeme Dodd on Jun 13, 2013 at 5:12 pm

  2. Dear Lloyd, as so often in theatre criticism your cultural memory is short and geography provincial. I humbly refer you to a memorable all-male production at Anthill in Melbourne in I think the late 80s or early 90s directed by Suzanne Chaundy and featuring Jacek Koman and Ian Scott as the maids with Ross Williams as Madame which thoroughly revelled in Genet’s exploration of gender as performance (as opposed to Andrews’ apparent, consistent and equally valid focus on class). Best wishes, Humphrey Bower

    by Humphrey Bower on Jun 14, 2013 at 2:45 pm

  3. I understand why there is no interval. Half the audience wouldn’t return.

    by Jay Rayme on Jun 14, 2013 at 6:21 pm

  4. What a brilliant review, it sums up my own feelings about the whole exercise. I left wondering what the point of the play was, it had been a draining experience. We went because of the cast and left wishing we had stayed in the bar at the end of the wharf where we had started the evening. How bad was it? I wished I had stayed home and watched the rugby league.

    by Steve Kemp on Jun 14, 2013 at 7:17 pm

  5. LBS,thanks for an interesting review.I feel much better now about missing out on a ticket, and, for me, the playwright’s name on that tent would have been the deal-clincher, though I agree with you about Blanchett’s excellence.
    Thanks too for mentioning that my pitiful taxes are funding an organisation with hiring practices about as transparent as a muslin tablecloth. Often wonder if something of the same sort occasioally happens in classical music.

    by Pusscat on Jun 14, 2013 at 8:57 pm

  6. this really does read like Llod had made up his mind before he even stepped into the theatre and spent the entire performance making mental notes of what he would criticise. tall poppy syndrome, anyone? nothing flatters the insecure critic as much as picking holes in a successful piece of theatre. but it’s rather strange to qualify almost every gripe, and then admit you don’t know much about Genet (of course it’s been produced with men in the lead roles)

    by Nick Shimmin on Jun 14, 2013 at 10:34 pm

  7. Nothing like a pot stirred. Humph, sorry if I my cultural memory is short but, I have to admit, at 54, it’s probably not just my cultural memory. Actually, it’s not a question of cultural memory. It’s a question of omnipresence. I can’t be everywhere at once. I’m in Sydney. I can’t cover or be across everything in Sydney, let alone south of the border.Thankyou for your information. I did qualify with ‘to the best of my knowledge’, as I recall. Due humility, I would’ve thought.

    Thanks for your contributions, Jay, Steve and Puss. Seems I’m not sitting out on this limb completely alone.

    Nick, not that I expect you to believe it, of course, but nothing could be further than the truth. I REALLY wanted to love this production. I’d been looking forward to it with bated breath. Truth is, I really want to love every production, as I’d much rather see good-to- great, if not transcendent theatre, than fair-to-poor, or worse. Seems you might have a bit of a preconceived notion yourself, but about critics. Contrary to popular belief, blood runs in our veins.

    by Lloyd Bradford Syke on Jun 17, 2013 at 10:37 am

  8. goodness, Lloyd, touched a nerve? i don’t think it’s seeking the wisdom of Solomon to expect a self-styled theatre critic to know Basic Facts about a production of a major play he’s reviewing. but perhaps facts and history don’t count for much in your world. the self-satisfied “pot stirred” seems to demonstrate the lofty heights to which your writing aspires. you provoked a couple of comments on the website! congratulations! job done! you also seem to think you’re the apotheosis of critics if you think my comments about your review somehow mean i have a problem with critics in general. i don’t – just bad lazy ones. but keep on thanking the people who agree with you, Lloyd. thus is a strong critical culture sustained.

    by Nick Shimmin on Jun 18, 2013 at 1:22 pm

  9. You’ll have to try a lot harder to touch a nerve, Nick. Just good-natured sparring, digger. Self-styled? Yes. What other style can I be? Styled by Shimmin? Actually, I quite like facts. And history. Even herstory. Not so much your story, the way you tell it. I don’t aspire to lofty heights. I’m just a bog ordinary punter, turning up to the theatre and scribbling a few impressions. May I humbly suggest your logic mightn’t quite survive close scrutiny? I think I’m the apotheosis of critics because I suggest you might be a little critic-phobic? That works how, exactly? Pot stirred is shorthand for debate provoked. I happen to think that’s a good thing. A productive thing. A constructive thing. Pity you see fit to lower the tone of such with your pernicious slurs. By the way, what ‘basic facts’ are we talking about? Please, enlighten me.

    Thanks for your contributions to date. I can’t tell you how much I value your opinion. I really can’t. You remind me of the little, old man who rings the tv station to say there’s too much sex in the programme you’re watching. Change the channel, Nick.

    by Lloyd Bradford Syke on Jun 18, 2013 at 10:06 pm

  10. I would go with the drift of the above review and really disagree with the attacks on the messenger.
    Not having read anything about the genesis of the play beforehand, and despite the excellent performances (with a small caveat the understandability of Huppert’s fast delivery, although she was much better in the latter half of the play), a couple of things started to grate.

    The overuse of swearing was just a distraction from the main message. It is most likely this language was never in the original script given when it was written. It does not take long for any audience to get the message re the sisters psycho-sexual relationship, so the quantity does not mean quality.

    It was also hard to get any feel for the class struggle aspects and the reasons for the murderous motives in the play as I was continually diverted by the settings, bright lighting and video playback. There was a lack of intimacy to allow exploration of those themes. The video was useful in some cases but was a distraction for most of the play. Do I look at the screen or at the actors etc?

    The talent on show, was spectacular (Elizabeth Debicki was splendid), and this I believe was the main reason most people were applauding at the end, not necessarily for the play itself.

    by Bronte Institute on Jun 19, 2013 at 6:03 pm

  11. A very accurate review. I hated the overdone production and unbelievable story. I wasn’t event that impressed with Cate, but that was probably caused by my total dislike of the play. Very disappointing!

    by Andrew Cummings on Jun 27, 2013 at 10:03 am

  12. When the state puts so much money into STC, the standards of their productions has to be higher than a suburban church hall group. The Maids should never have got to the stage and getting a well known french actor in to justify production is a terrible waste of money. STC needs a new broom so that this waste of money is never repeated.

    by gapot on Jun 28, 2013 at 12:18 pm

  13. It took me about three minutes to find a production of this play with an all-male cast.

    The best of your knowledge is the entire world wide web and then some. I would expect a writer of your caliber to have the due humility of a simple Google search rather than defend his or her memory, which, I do not doubt is flagging.

    by Maxine Elizabeth on Jul 4, 2013 at 12:53 am

  14. I thought everything about this production was brilliant. Yes, even the screen… Especially the screen!

    Consuming story, unrelenting performances and intelligent set design/lighting.

    I will hazard to say that those who didn’t like it just didn’t completely understand it.

    by Scribbler on Jul 4, 2013 at 6:10 pm

  15. “it might be best to go back to square one. Genet, a true radical, originally wanted men to play all the roles. To the best of my knowledge, it’s never happened. ”

    What a sexist comment. The play has actually been done with men many times. In fact, I can’t recall a production that wasn’t.

    And I disagree with many of the comments (and the review). I very much enjoyed the production, it was very engaging and interesting what Andrews did, and the actors where superb. Huppert was dragged down a bit because of the language barrier.
    Then again, I am very familiar with Genet, and the play.

    by Kate on Apr 5, 2014 at 8:10 am

  16. Humphrey Bower. in my opinion, you’re being a prat. Why would someone remember a production from the eighties that was directed by Suzanne Chuandy? She’s hardly gone on to do much at all since her time at Anthill, and the production might as well have been a hundred years ago. You’re just playing status games here, and I don’t think any other person would think that it was Lloyd ‘ought’ to know about a production that took place in Melbourne a very long time ago- especially when the director you mention never went on to make any significant mark in the industry that would make Lloyd, or anyone else, think of her in the context of The Maids.

    by Annie Baker on Apr 23, 2014 at 10:49 pm

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